Highlights of the research of Dr. Richard Davidson, neuroscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Develop a more consistent state of calmness
- Control reaction to unpleasant stimuli
- Return to calmness more quickly
Dr. Davidson is at the center of a field of research involving meditation and its effect on the brain. His numerous studies utilize structural and functional brain imaging technology performed in a state-of-the-art facility focused on neuroscience, psychology, physics and statistics.
One such study involving Tibetan Buddhist monks, with tens of thousands of hours of experience meditating suggests the actual structure and the function of the brain can be altered through the practice of meditation. The concept of “neuroplasticity,” the ability of the brain to change throughout our lives in response to our experiences is at the core of understanding the effects of meditation.
Davidson first studied Matthieu Ricard, a French-born monk from India by hooking up 128 electrodes to his head and recording his brain activity as Ricard meditated on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” Two strikingly unusually results were immediately apparent: Ricard produced powerful gamma brain waves oscillating at 40 cycles per second and oscillations from other areas of his cortex were in synchrony in a fashion similar to that of patients under anesthesia. Gamma brain waves are often faint and hard to pickup but in Ricard’s meditative state they appeared unusually strong, indicating his ability to maintain intensely focused thought.
These results led Davidson to expand his study to include more monks and to include college students with little or no experience at meditation. The end result was that the monks produced gamma waves 30 times as strong as the students. The other finding was that the monks had larger active areas in their brains as compared to the students. Of significance was the area of the brain responsible for positive emotions, the left prefrontal cortex.
After a negative event or emotionally charged situation meditators recover and return to a calm state faster than individuals who have not developed calming skills. The monks are an example of this skill where they have learned compassion mediation. Their ability to activate the prefrontal cortex in response to the situation and modulate areas of the amygdala helps them to reduce reaction and quickly return to a state of calm. The ability to “down regulate” the amygdala is key because that is the area of the brain that forms and stores memories associated with emotional events and is concerned with vigilance and threat detection.
Note: image of monk with Electrodes comes from National Geographic, photograph by Cary Wolinsky and associated with this story by James Shreeve: Beyond the Brain